This morning I am heading “across the channel” (I always wanted to say that. It sounds so impressive) to Belgium. Leuven Belgium is the European headquarters of my dark corporate overlords. From the control room of their Leuven lair, they pull the strings of our minions across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. In my 12 years under the employ of my liege lords, I have made upwards of 20 trips to Leuven. I have become pretty fond of the place, and know it pretty well by now.
Leuven is the home to the largest University in the low countries (Belgium, Netherlands & Luxembourg). The “Katholieke Universiteit Leuven” was founded in 1425, and now has over 35,000 students spread among the many colleges that make up the University. The town is literally overrun with students. Most of the kids attend school during the week, and live in apartments in town, but head home to their folks on the weekend. In a country as small as Leuven, this just makes sense. So the busiest night in the bars of Leuven is typically Thursday. I have been awoken many Friday mornings at 4 am, by students singing on their way home. All in all, the city is pretty tolerant of them. They have been around for 600 years, so I guess that only makes sense.
Leuven is on the Dutch side of the Belgian language divide. Belgium, being a make believe country, is composed of two different cultural and ethnic groups. The Dutch speaking Flemish in the northern half of the country, and the French speaking Walloons in the Southern half. It was carved out of the Netherlands, following the Napoleonic wars, by the British in a classic move of British diplomacy. Create a country out of two disparate ethnic groups who hate each other, and rule them with a dowdy relative of the Queen. In this case, Leopold the First, the Duke of Saxony, uncle of Queen Victoria, and the first King of the Belgians.
Even after almost 200 years of statehood, the country is still on the verge of breaking apart. In fact, the language and culture wars became so bad in the 60’s and 70’s that the Federal government essentially gave each half it’s own government, and split the place down the middle. (The University was split in two as well, with the French speakers moving about 30 miles south and starting their own university, and the Leuven branch becoming a Dutch speaking Institution) Oh, I forgot to mention that Belgium also picked up a piece of Germany after one of the World Wars, so there’s a little sliver of German speakers, also with their own government. Brussels, being the capital, surrounded by Flemish speaking Flanders, was a sticking point for the Walloons. The French speakers being a ruling class minority for over 150 years, they refused to give up the prestige of the capital to the Flemish. So they made the city its own region, officially bi-lingual, and gave it a government of its own. So Belgium has 5 governments. Six if you count the Headquarters of the European Union. Hence the civic booster motto “Welcome to Belgium, the Capital of Europe”. Yes, more government is pretty much the answer to all their problems.
Ask any Belgian though, errr… I mean Flemish or Walloon, and you might get a different opinion. They all chafe at the heavy hand of government. Although, pragmatically, they realize every 10 years or so that all their efforts to break the place up become inextricably mired in quicksand, and then they give in, form a coalition government, and get things back to normal. Sounds like a great place to put a company, a country whose politics are so parochial and convoluted that a majority decision can seldom be reached without someone feeling victimized. Honestly, as many friends as I have here, if it were truly up to me I’d close the damn office and move it to Holland where the only thing anybody cares about is making a buck. The good ol’ Dutch, you have to admire their entrepreneurship.
As for the Belgian’s, the French sum things up in a way that only the French can do. When a problem is intractable the French refer to it as “le affair Belgique” (a Belgian Affair). After twelve years of beating my head against the rock that is Belgium, I could not agree more. The national sport of Belgium is “victimhood”. Seriously, no country on earth can possibly be more passive aggressive than the Belgians. I have a personal theory on this. For centuries, Belgium was the battle ground of Northern Europe. Whenever the French, the Germans, or the Dutch wanted to stir up trouble and strike out at each other, they had to go through Belgium first. Only Poland has probably had more wars fought out on its territory, and been subject to as many different masters as the Belgians. That’s why they are born with a chip on their shoulder. So as much as I work with them, and build relationships, I am always just another foreign carpet bagger, here to exploit them. Sigh… this gets tiresome.
That all said, I love the place. Well, the Flemish part anyway. The disdainful Walloons I could live without 🙂 I’ll stick with the hard working, humorless, beet farming, Flemish peasants. They are more honest about their lack of feeling for you and your kind, which I respect. Is that enough hurtful stereotypes for one post? I hope so. Thankfully, these pains in the arse brew the best beer, and cook the tastiest food in all the world. So that makes up for a lot of the head aches they cause.
See you in Belgium.